About making decisions

You’ll get nowhere if you can’t make decisions yourself and stand up to them. This probably holds true for many aspects in life but especially if you work in a startup. Btw: the answer is yes if you’re still facing the decision whether to join a startup.

Is throwing a dice to make a decision the best way?

Everyone of us is dealing every day with dozens if not hundreds of decisions. Our brain is both handling more conscious ones such as ‘what should I wear today?’ to the many subconscious ones that keep us afloat and guide us through our daily routines. Imagine you’d have to make a conscious decision every time about lifting your right or left foot next to do a step.

That would probably cost a lot of brain capacity and time. But how effective are you at handling decisions that need a conscious thinking process and action? Do you spend the right amount of time and energy on situations where your decision might have a big impact – relative to the time you spend on small-scale stuff?

Take my acquaintance Leo for example. If you’re tweeting a lot you should check out his startup Buffer. He has limited his wardrobe to white t-shirts, so he doesn’t lose any time in the morning to decide what to wear.

Now this might not be the right thing for everyone but it clearly removes unnecessary clutter in Leo’s daily life and he can focus on growing Buffer.

Aside decisions in your personal life, working in a startup has additional challenges around decisions:
– often decisions have to be made fast
– often it’s unclear who is responsible for making the decision, so you’ll have to make it yourself
– you’re hired to make the right decisions yourself in your area because the founders/CEO need to focus on their own difficult decisions – no time to hold hands
– many of the decisions have direct impact on the product, and can be seen by the customers and people using it
– there are dozens of opportunities, requests, offers, issues, problems – how do you prioritize them?
– you have no clue what works and what doesn’t work
– chances are you’ll be doing things you’ve never done before that require decisions to be made by you from the very start

And that’s the beauty of working in a startup. Even if you’re an intern: you not only need to make influential decisions, but in good startups the flat hierarchy and culture will also empower you to actively do so. If you’ve ever worked in a larger company or big enterprise you know that this is nothing you can take for granted.

However, if you can’t make up your mind on how to do something, it will probably never get done.

I still remember being relatively new at Podio and having a beer with Kasper, one of the co-founders. He said something along the lines of “You’re a great guy and probably smarter than me but I make stuff happen. And I’m here to teach you how.”

So how do you get better at making decisions?
I’m much more confident and better at making decisions now than when I joined my first startup. I think starting small is good. I don’t ever want to stop there though. As far as possible I try to push myself to make bigger decisions – and stand by them. Learn from them. Sometimes I forget it again, so I’m reminded next time that I should remember. Saying no is still an area for me to improve. I’ve sort of developed my system of prioritizing stuff but it’s still in ongoing iteration:)
If it takes too long to make a decision, I’ve taken Kasper’s advice and just start doing it and see what happens. I always look at data if possible. For the rest I trust my gut feelings.

Be opinionated and stubborn but not narrow-minded. And of course: only because there’s no one else to sign off or decide doesn’t mean there aren’t people whom to ask for their opinion or advice. You don’t have to save the world alone – and you won’t. Be opinionated and stubborn but not narrow-minded. Don’t be dumb, don’t let yourself put under stress, don’t be drunk, angry, or too tired when making decisions. Plus my personal credo: be ethical.

So, are you gonna make the decision to make less less important and more more important decisions?

Interview at a Startup

Is getting a job at a startup easy? I’d say it’s as with any other job: if it’s too easy you’re either a total rockstar hire or the job isn’t worth it.

Finding startup gigs is, depending on the location, anything from easy to difficult. I’ll share how I ended up in two startups in another post.

Let’s assume you found one (if you’re a kick-ass developer or designer be sure that the job will find you:).
What can you expect from the initial talks/interviews besides all the normal stuff you already know about interviews?

Comic illustration by Canary Pete: www.canarypete.be

The obvious things first:

  • Looking for a safe job? Go back to start.
  • Aiming to get a higher salary then in your agency job? Double fail. Of course we all expect a fair compensation package. Should it be amongst your top 3 priorities? No.
  • Is it necessary to wear your finest suit to the interview? I can only imagine 2 situations where that’s the case: a) you join a suit customization startup; b) you’re interviewing for a Glengarry Glen Ross startup.

The less obvious stuff:
If they don’t ask you tough questions, if they don’t check up on you, if they don’t ask you for concrete examples of your work -> it’s either a newbie startup founder/CEO without a lot of experience, or they don’t put the focus on their most important resource: their team members. My humble opinion: you shouldn’t bother joining in that case.

I think there’s often also quite a difference between “business” and “tech” hires. At Podio, usually the whole development and product team would take turns to get to know the potential new team member. As a business hire, I only had talks with the CEO and two of the co-founders on the other hand.

The important stuff:
YOU gotta ask questions. You will influence this startup with your personality, your ideas & beliefs, so make sure it’s a great match. Make sure you get a picture of the DNA of the startup. Just read Steve Job’s biography to see how this DNA is shaped from the beginning and hardly changes. You want to understand, and more importantly share the vision. Be critical of course, but if you don’t believe in it, don’t just join because the founder is famous.

A few of the questions I asked:
How transparent do you communicate the product roadmap and financial situation (I had just read these extremely great insights about the early PayPal days)
What’s the vision – exit-orientated, long-term?
What’s your plans around VC funding? (they probably can’t tell you if they’re in talks other than yes we’re looking or no we’re fine)
Biggest challenge at the moment?

What I think is good to find out:

  • What comes first? User, product, revenue, thought leadership?
  • What’s the product development process? How do strategic, business, design, and development aspects play along?
  • Is there an open culture to actively influence the product?

Asking those kind of questions can give you a great sense of how the ship works that you’re onboarding. What the potential barriers to getting your work done might be, and also the support you can expect from the team. And, you might be able to spot if there’s any contradictions between the beliefs & values communicated in public on their website for example vs. behind the scenes.

After the interview:

As with anything else: follow-up and follow-through. Don’t just go home and sit and wait. Get your head spinning on how you can help the startup propel things ahead.

Follow-up. “I’ve set my mind: I want to join Podio” – that’s the subject line of an email I sent 3 days after the interview. And that’s exactly how I felt so I wanted to make sure to be clear about that. I guess it worked:)

What’s your experience with interviews at startups? What’s the main difference you see from other job interviews?

Joining Startups

Joining a startup is an experience I wouldn’t want to miss in my life. That’s why I’ve done it twice. And I’m not alone as I see more and more people choosing the startup path – whether they do it right after graduating, already before, or leaving their well-paid Goldman Sachs, consulting or agency jobs. (Just in the last month I’ve seen three people being lured by Rocket Internet to join their worldwide clone empire, but that’s for a different post).

It’s clearly a trend – and a logical consequence of more and more people jumping to found their own startup.

We’re reading a lot about these brave entrepreneurs these days – but what about the people who buy into their visions, join their startups at early stages, and help them make it happen?

We love the startup game. We’re not entrepreneurs or founders but we definitely have some entrepreneurial spirit and some of us might risk to jump themselves later. The famous examples of the YouTube founders who were early employees of Google or the whole PayPal Mafia show this.

Joining a startup as employee #1 is a totally different game than founding it and can’t be compared. I also agree with Christina Cacioppo that joining a startup is different from joining startups. She’s written an excellent post about the difference that you should read.

Joining startups is fun. We accept the hard work with lower pay and get rewarded with an incredible team spirit that is essential to achieve things that at times sound impossible.

So who are the people who join startups?

I feel they are strong individualists and yet they’re united in their motivations and beliefs.

People who join startups are united by their strong drive and passion to create value, excel at whatever their work is and have a can-do attitude. They get motivated by seeing direct results of their work and being empowered to move things. Move things and shape and build.

They enjoy the varying degrees of ambiguity and uncertainty every startup is facing and see it as an opportunity. They grab the opportunities and take the lead with own initiatives, bringing new ideas to the table and also execute them.

They leave secure jobs with “clear” career options, move to another country without knowing whether the startup will still exist in 8 months. And they prefer to work agile, can’t stand the feeling of being restricted in strict hierarchies, facing walls when trying to get fresh approaches accepted.

So one could say that in many aspects they have certain startup founder characteristics. And yet, we know that our burden and risk is far smaller. Our upside and downside is not as extreme.

You probably noticed my switching between ‘they’ and ‘we’ as it’s hard to have an objective point of view – so I will stick to ‘we’ and ‘I’ from now on.
Joining startups also requires a certain degree of ego-centrism anyway:)

I have many learnings and stories I want to share. Expect me to write more posts: tips on evaluating whether to join a specific startup or not, the ups and downs, marketing lessons learned, the joys and lowdowns, the gap between bubble and real world, making sure you don’t work for free, team spirit, understanding differences between business people and developers,…there’s a lot going on in startup life.

I’d love to hear from you, too! Are you thinking about joining a startup? If you’re already at one, why did you do it? Do you regret it?

In the meantime as put by Chris McCann: Join a startup or do something you love. Life is too short to work at a boring company.